Morris brings intensity back to secondary

When Tampa Bay's secondary didn't play up to its usual standards last season, head coach Jon Gruden knew just what to do. He went out and re-hired Raheem Morris, who coached Bucs defensive backs under Mike Tomlin for two seasons. Now in charge, Morris promises there will be competition at every position.

Raheem Morris watched the disaster last year in a press box in Manhattan, Kan.

No, not the Kansas State Wildcats, where he was defensive coordinator. The Tampa Bay secondary, where before 2006 he had been an assistant secondary coach under Mike Tomlin.

Both left after the 2005 season — Morris to Kansas and Tomlin to Minnesota, where he became defensive coordinator (Tomlin is now head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers). And the secondary suffered.

The pass defense fell to No. 19 in the league last year. The Bucs generated just 11 interceptions, tied for third worst in the NFL. They were tied for 31st in passing touchdowns allowed. Opposing quarterbacks completed 61.1 percent of their passes, and their overall quarterback rating of 91.7 was the worst among NFL defenses.

Plus, veteran cornerback Brian Kelly was hurt most of the year, and safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen were exposed as average tacklers.

Certainly this decline wasn't entirely the secondary's fault. As much blame can be placed at the feet of the defensive line, which generated just 25 sacks and little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But Tampa Bay didn't take any chances this offseason. They fired first-year coach Greg Burns and, knowing they had no chance to lure Tomlin back, re-signed his protégé.

Morris had an advantage over Burns, whose laid-back style fell in stark contrast to Tomlin's fiery personality — he already knew the personnel.

"Most of the guys in that room were hand-picked either by myself or (Pittsburgh head coach) Mike Tomlin," Morris said. "We all had some kind of affect on getting all these guys. They're the same type of work-ethic guys. They all bring something to the table. Whether they bring their best to the table when it's time to perform, that's what remains to be seen. Everyone in that room can be a starter."

Morris doesn't seem intimidated by the thought of working with an All-Pro cornerback like Ronde Barber because he's already done it. From 2002-05, Morris served as a defensive quality control coach, a defensive assistant to coordinator Monte Kiffin and then assistant defensive backs coach for two seasons under Tomlin. During that time, the Bucs twice finished with the best pass defense in the NFL.

If anyone on an all-new defensive staff — line coach Larry Coyer and linebackers coach Gus Bradley are in their first years as primary position coaches with the Bucs — understands what Kiffin wants, it's Morris.

And he knows that means creating competition, including among the three defensive backs selected in this draft — Sabby Piscitelli, Tanard Jackson and Marcus Hamilton.

"Anyone we pick in this draft is going to push (for playing time)," Morris said. "We look for guys that push each other. (Assistant defensive backs coach) Jimmy Lake is trying to replace me every day, and he should. My room is not going to waver. They won't fear and they shouldn't. But they better come to work."

Morris has already had an effect on the younger players. During a recent voluntary workout, Morris appeared to make second-year cornerback Alan Zemaitis a pet project. He worked Zemaitis for an entire drill, without a break, constantly criticizing and praising as the former Penn State product worked on keeping receivers away from the inside of the field.

Phillips, who is now the most veteran safety on the team, told the media recently that Morris' familiarity with the roster and Tomlin-like demeanor has already raised the expectations for the unit. Phillips admitted that the unit seemed to get away from technique and fundamentals, in his opinion.

That likely won't be the case under Morris, who seems intent on whipping this unit back into one of the NFL's best. That means a battle at every position. And it helps when your key veterans back you up.

"There's always a battle for positions in our room," Morris said. "Everyone feels that way. Ronde Barber feels that way and he's the greatest. So, that's just the way it is."

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.

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